Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - July 9, 2010

Board of Contributors: Smiling (ruefully) at responses to bi-racial families

by Elizabeth Lee

My daughter, Rowan, is half Chinese, and she doesn't look very much like me. My older son, Dale, who has a different father, has my red hair and ruddy face, and people knew we were mother and son from opposite ends of the playground.

But when I took Rowan out anywhere, the reactions I got were different: confused looks on people's faces, and comments. When Rowan was a baby one woman stared at us with suspicion and fear, as if she thought I'd kidnapped my daughter. When I met her panicked eyes, I swear she looked ready to bolt for the nearest phone and call the police.

"Who's she with?" she asked.

"Me," I replied, as the woman turned red-faced and trotted off in embarrassment. I was later told about someone who really did call the police, suspecting a kidnapping, when he saw a non-Chinese woman with an adopted Chinese daughter.

"She looks Chinese. Where did you get her?" another woman in a public restroom asked.

"I thought she was adopted until you started breastfeeding her," another at a park told me. A grandmother at my son's school who spoke little English pointed at my daughter and then pushed her eyes upward in a slant with her fingers.

When Rowan was a little girl, people worried she had wondered off alone. Once a woman in our doctors' office asked if Rowan was with me even when Rowan was standing right next to me. Another woman tried to steer Rowan over to an Asian family walking away from us in the opposite direction. "Is she with you?" is usually what people asked.

"Yes, she's with me," was my usual reply. Saying that she's my daughter whom I actually, really did give birth to seemed like too much effort, given the frequency of the questions.

Sometimes when my husband, Elgin, our kids, and I eat out, the door hostess talks with Elgin about seating us, as the rest of us gather at his side. Then the hostess looks at me and asks, "May I help you?"

"We're together," one of us always replies, as the hostess says 'Oh' and quickly looks down with embarrassment. When this happens in a Chinese restaurant I always imagine they wonder what my husband sees in a non-Chinese woman like me. One restaurant hostess actually had us follow her to a table, and then turned and stared at us in confusion. "You mean," she asked as she looked from one of us to the other and then back again, "you're all together?" We had to go back and wait until a larger table was available.

It's our mantra: "We're together." We say it at airports, concerts, and checkout lines in stores. We've said it at open houses, museums and most everywhere else.

I've met many other bi-racial families, including parents with an adopted child of a different ethnic background, with similar experiences.

"They think I'm the nanny," many mothers say — if they're not Caucasian, that is. As racist as it sounds, people seem to expect the nanny to be non-Caucasian and their charges to be Caucasian. When it's the other way around, they're confused.

I met another red-haired mother at a park whose son, even though he was also Caucasian, looked more like his dark-haired Italian father. She had the same experiences as mine with strangers' reactions. Another woman with a half-Chinese baby girl said people assumed she went to China and got her. Even in an area as ethnically diverse as the Bay Area, people seem to expect families, especially biologically related families, to look like each other.

That's not always the case, and in our Heinz 57 Variety culture, the lines of racial identity become blurred and our usual assumptions and stereotypes don't always apply. The way we dress, the food we eat, the way we talk, things we do, our spiritual lives, and yes, the way we look, no longer fit into the nice, neat little boxes that they used to.

Instead what we're left with is our common humanity, with our individual personalities, shining through our physical appearances, defining who we are.

It's really no big deal; it's far more amusing than frustrating. One time at a store, Elgin and I put our items, an electronic gizmo for him and a pink Barbie doll clock for Rowan, down on the checkout counter, and the cashier rang them up. Or so we thought. As we each picked up our items and walked toward the door, the cashier said, "Excuse me, Ma'am, did you want to buy that?"

"Yes," I said. "Why? Didn't you just ring it up?"

"No."

We had to wait while he ran Elgin's credit card a second time. "Why didn't that man ring our things up together?" I complained with frustration after we left the store. "I don't get it. He saw us with each other the entire time, right up until we put our things down to pay for them at the same time. Didn't he realize that we're togeth.... Oh." Our eyes met, and we laughed. "Of course not."

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, and is a member of the Weekly's Board of Contributors. She lives in Palo Alto with her husband, two children and dog and can be e-mailed at liz@funghi.com.

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